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The Top 5 Baseball Scenes in Non-Baseball Movies
5. Capt. Hilts bangs the wall slowly in “The Great Escape” (1963)
There’s a lot of good baseball movies out there—“Bull Durham,” “The Natural,” “61*”—but some of the best baseball scenes are in movies that aren’t about baseball at all. They show up in movies the way baseball shows up in our lives: as background material, sometimes comic, sometimes relevant, sometimes heavy with meaning. And no baseball scenes are both lighter and more heavy with meaning than those in “The Great Escape.” In a WWII German concentration camp, Capt. Hilts (Steve McQueen) is known as “The Cooler King” because of the time he spends there as punishment for his numerous escape attempts. How does he keep his wits? With two great American inventions: glove and ball. For all his athleticism McQueen isn’t a natural here: he brings glove to meet ball rather than letting the ball come to him. Plus the notion that POWs, even officers, were allowed such contraband in solitary seems Hollywoodish. But the image it still powerful. You try to break me and I will bang the ball on the floor so it bangs against the opposite wall, and back to me. Bang-bang-pop. Bang-bang-pop. That banging isn’t just wiling away the time. It’s a warning. It’s a threat to break free.
4. Frank Drebin butchers the national anthem in “The Naked Gun” (1989)
“Literally” is a word people misuse all the time, but I want you to know that when I saw “The Naked Gun” in 1989, and Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen), sang the National Anthem pretending to be opera star Enrico Pallazzo, I literally fell on that sticky theater floor in Edina, Minn., because I was laughing so hard. Imagine how badly someone can sing our national anthem and double it. He screws up the words, too—“Buncha bombs in the air”—and resorts to da-da-das. Then the coup de grace: the egotistical Palazzo, trussed up in his dressing room, seeing on TV this bastardization attributed to him. That’s when I went down on one knee from laughing so hard. There are a lot of hilarious baseball scenes in non-baseball movies— the Marx Brothers toss the ball in the middle of an opera; Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) winds up on-deck at Yankee Stadium in 1927—but this one’s it for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed so hard.
3. Teaching the second-most-popular woman in America about the national pastime in “Woman of the Year” (1942)
A few years ago I took a girl from Spain to a baseball game and wound up sounding like Sam Craig (Spencer Tracey) to Tess Harper (Katherine Hepburn) in the great pressbox scene in “Woman of the Year.” Who’s the pitcher? Why, the one pitching—... Uh, the fellow in the middle. Sam is the New York Chronicle’s sports columnist, Tess is its woman of the world—meeting with foreign leaders, speaking foreign languages, but not knowing basic American. During a radio show, she even suggests abolishing the national pastime for the duration of the war, and asks, in the silence afterwards, “Have I said something wrong?” Indeed. We’re fighting for our way of life, Sam says, and baseball is part of that way of life. “What’s the sense of abolishing the thing you’re trying to protect?” After dueling columns they agree to bury the hatchet at Yankee Stadium. She gets into the game, they get into each other, and off they go. Not to sound like my father, but has there been better chemistry between two actors? Ever?
2. Kevin Buckman’s dad celebrates a catch in “Parenthood” (1989)
Hollywood has portrayed the distractions and horrors of little league in movies as diverse as “My Dog Skip,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Max Dugan Returns,” but no film does it better than Ron Howard’s “Parenthood.” Kevin Buckman’s dad and coach, Gil (Steve Martin), tells his son to go out and have fun, but Kevin misses a pop fly at second base that would’ve won the game, and where’s the fun in that? Later Kevin is stuck out in right field (we’ve all been there), and the situation’s the same—a catch wins the game—and despite the interference of the loud-mouth bully on the team, Kevin, face scrunched in slow-motion horror, finally makes that catch. What makes the scene, though, is Gil’s reaction. The father who’s been telling his son just to have fun, that it’s just a game, goes insane. He jumps up and down, throws his cap, mocks the bully’s dad, dances across the infield. He picks up his son, dances back, collapses to his knees, runs on his knees, faceplants, and turns on his back, cycling in the air and whooping it up like a two-year-old. It’s pure, insane joy, and a reminder both of Martin’s brilliance as a physical comedian and one of the true lessons of baseball: celebrate while you can.
1. McMurphy creates the World Series in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
This one’s so good it takes three scenes. Scene 1: In a mental institution, Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) asks to switch the work-detail so he and the other inmates can watch the World Series, but the boys, intimidated by authority, vote with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) against McMurphy. Scene 2: McMurphy bets them he can put a sink through a wall to go to a bar to watch the game; he can’t, of course, but tells them with disdain, “Well, I tried, didn’t I, goddamnit. At least I did that.” Scene 3: In the middle of another therapy session, where they’re forced to open up about girls and feelings, Cheswick, this time, brings up the Series, and this time everyone votes with McMurphy. So McMurphy wins. But he doesn’t. Because Nurse Ratched counts everyone in the ward—including the Chronics, the guys whose minds are gone—as potential voters. It’s a rigged election. But McMurphy de-rigs it. He campaigns—“Wanna watch baseball, pal, the World Series?”—and gets Chief Bromden to vote with them. So McMurphy wins. But he doesn’t. Because Nurse Ratched says the meeting was over and the vote doesn’t count. McMurphy is reduced to staring at a blank TV screen, enveloped in Muzak. Until he gets an idea. He broadcasts the game himself. He just makes it up. The other inmates gather around that blank set, confused at first, then cheering him on, until they’re out of control with excitement. Nurse Ratched tries to get their attention, tries to regain control, but can’t. And she loses it. And McMurphy wins.
—Erik Lundegaard wishes the World Series was still played in World Series weather. This piece originally appeared in October 2009 on MSNBC.com.
© 2009 Erik Lundegaard